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Friday, July 7, 2000

Union leery of
‘magic’ longline
observer funds

'First the money isn't there
and then suddenly
it reappears'

By Peter Wagner


Newly found money to hire back long-line fishing observers laid off by the National Marine Fisheries Service in May is budgetary sleight of hand, says a labor union called in to represent the safety of the observers.

logo "First the money isn't there and then suddenly it reappears," said Lono Kane, regional director of the Inland Boatmen's Union of the Pacific. "We don't know what kind of magic they're doing over there."

Rod McInnis, acting administrator of the Southwest Region of the National Marine Fisheries Service, yesterday disclosed that some funds had recently been found to tide over the agency's Hawaii observer program until an emergency appropriation is signed by President Clinton and released.

McInnis would not say how much funding is available but said it would initially hire back at least four and possibly all 12 of the observers laid off since May. "The problem will be the people. We know some have gone on to other jobs."

A backup source of trained observers, he said, might be a handful of mainland contractors currently training workers for the Alaskan and Northwest fishing fleets.

The Hawaii observer program was established by the agency in 1994 to monitor threats to endangered sea turtles by U.S. tuna and swordfish longliners.

The Fisheries Service, which says the employees are on unpaid leave, has said it was forced to lay off the workers because of a $500,000 budget shortfall.

But Kane said the workers were terminated in the midst of contract talks. And he believes money has been available all along, part of a $1.2 million annual budget allocation that contributed just $125,000 to the Hawaii program.

"The only observer program that has full federal funding is here in Hawaii," he said. "That money should have come here."

Kane said the union for nearly a year has been trying to negotiate its first contract with the federal agency. Because wage and benefits are regulated by law, the only issue at hand is safety -- long a concern among the agency's observers in Hawaii.

At a news conference yesterday in which the union called for the resignations of McInnis and Assistant Administrator for Fisheries Penelope Dalton, Kane said observers are sometimes sent out on unsafe boats.

He cited a 1998 case in which the longliner Red October was hit by a huge wave that took the life of one crew member and seriously injured an observer. The boat did not have a Coast Guard safety certificate at the time.

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